The most memorable night …

Finally!!! The stars smiled upon us tonight (perhaps taking pity over the horrendously painful dental problems I was suffering) and, for once, we had a perfectly clear night up at the observatory. I have never, in fact, seen as many stars as we saw tonight except for one night last year in Arizona, when Rich and I stopped along the roadside on our way from Organ Pipe National Monument back to Ajo.

Rich made it a fabulous night all around; it was a real treat, especially when I was feeling so miserable. We started off with pizza from Pehr’s (great crust, melty cheese, sauce missing “something” as yet undetermined), followed by Manning’s ice cream (burgundy cherry for me, and chocolate cherry almond for R.). Then we headed up to the observatory.

We arrived around 7:30pm and glimpsed the crescent moon through the large refractor in the dome.  As usual, skywatcher/teacher/comedienne Jo Ann Kamichitis presented a slide show (tonight’s topic: eclipses) which was as informative and amusing as always. Then we went back outside to enjoy the real show!

We first went back to the dome after John Sabia called out that he would be showing Jupiter. We’d been waiting months for this! The view was much larger than we’d ever seen through our own scope; I think the magnification was about 140x. We were even able to see the Great Red Spot and a multitude of bands we can’t see at home. However, both Rich and I felt that this view wasn’t quite as sharp or clear as the views we got later through the telescope out in the field operated by Jo Ann and the 10-inch scope inside the LAS shed. We spent at least an hour in the shed, eventually joined by Rich from Dickson City (of “#*&% tree/rock cache” fame). What a fantastic experience!

In addition to the Milky Way, which stood out against a mostly black sky like I’ve not seen around here for decades, we saw through the scope:

  • M11 (Wild Duck Star Cluster)
  • M31 (Andromeda Galaxy)
  • M51 (Whirlpool Galaxy)
  • M57 (Ring Nebula)

While we waited for the man operating the scope to find Neptune (unfortunately he wasn’t successful), we saw two meteorites streak across the sky.  We all just happened to be looking in the right direction, both times!  The first was the brightest and longest-lasting we’ve ever seen, and we could watch it burn up and disintegrate as it dropped.

Out in the farthest field, we watched a man taking photos of Jupiter.  They were much better than my photos, though he still claimed his tracking was off a bit.  His battery died and we returned to the near field.  Jo Ann had prepared a view of the Swan Nebula for us.  I came away stating that it looked much more like a loon, while at the same time Rich asked if it looked like a pig!  Jo Ann and I were confused until he explained that he thought she’d said “Swine Nebula.”  She agreed that “Loon Nebula” might well be more appropriate—but we’re powerless to change all of the astronomy texts at this point.

Another visit to the dome provided us with a view of Uranus … just a small disk with a slight gray-green tinge.  (Note as to pronunciation: “Urine-us” seems preferable to “Your-anus.”)  I couldn’t spot any of its moons.  John then showed more views of Jupiter through two different eyepieces.  By this time, the GRS had already rotated toward the back of the planet.  With the weaker eyepiece, we could see all four moons in the view.

While we waited for John to point the scope toward Jupiter, Rich from DC joined us again.  He mentioned how we looked different from our photos (which isn’t surprising, considering we were standing in near-darkness all night, illuminated at times only by a 2-watt [or thereabouts] red lightbulb).  He disappeared from the dome and we were unable to find him again before we decided to leave, around 10:00pm.

Regardless of the pain I was in, it was the most enjoyable night I’ve had in a long time!  Still, there’s nothing quite like the views we get through our own puny 45x spotting scope while sitting out on the patio and sharing a bottle of wine.  As Rich commented, we get a much stronger sense of the whole of Jupiter’s “system” through the smaller scope, and a better perspective on its distance from us.